R.I.P. Tony Curtis

This week of celebrity deaths barrels on: The New York Times reports that Tony Curtis died last night in his Las Vegas home of cardiac arrest. He was 85.

Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz, the poor son of Hungarian immigrants, who spent most of his early life crammed into a small room at the back of his father’s tailor shop. Until the age of five or six, Curtis spoke only Hungarian; in later interviews, he revealed that both his mother and brother suffered from schizophrenia, with his brother being institutionalized when they were both children. When he was eight, Curtis and his younger brother were sent to an orphanage for a month because their parents couldn’t afford to feed them; a few years later, Curtis’ other brother was hit and killed by a truck.

That Curtis managed to not only survive but triumph over all this is one of those old Hollywood miracles. After serving in the Pacific theater of World War II, he began studying acting under German stage director Erwin Piscator alongside Walter Matthau, Rod Steiger, and Elaine Stritch. There the naturally handsome Curtis attracted the attention of a talent agent who brought him to Universal Pictures, where Bernard Schwartz got his new name (after briefly trying on “Anthony Cross”) and, eventually, small parts in films. Those early days were marked by Curtis working hard to shed every trace of his rough-and-tumble Bronx upbringing, though it still occasionally bled through: Most famously, his delivery of the line “Yonder lies the castle of my fodder” in 1951’s The Prince Who Was A Thief became a running joke that shadowed him his entire life.

After spending the decade playing a lot of goodhearted working-class guys and well-meaning criminals—with occasional detours into The Scarlet Pimpernel and Harry Houdini—Curtis’ true breakthrough performance came in 1957 with Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell Of Success. As the oily, underhanded press agent Sidney Falco, Curtis risked his entire image on one of the more cynical films ever made by the studio system, just to prove that he was more than just a pretty face. It worked and backfired at the same time: Audiences (and Curtis’ co-star Burt Lancaster) hated the film, but critics adored it, and over time it’s become regarded as one of the greatest movies ever made for the very reasons it was a box-office failure.

The very next year, Curtis cemented his claim to being a serious actor with The Defiant Ones, playing a racist convict who must learn to work together with Sidney Poitier when the two escape from a chain gang. Curtis scored his first and only Oscar nomination for the role—he lost to David Niven—but more importantly, he’d managed to become one of the biggest stars of the era while also proving to be one of its most versatile.

 

In 1959, Curtis scored a huge commercial and critical hit in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, playing a musician who’s forced to dress as woman while hiding out from gangsters. Although Jack Lemmon was the proven comedian, Curtis more than held his own—particularly in his scenes romancing Marilyn Monroe, where Curtis took a stab at a Cary Grant impression, an actor he’d idolized in his early days. Curtis later claimed that he and Monroe were romantically involved in the 1940s, although this would seem to contradict one of the most famous stories surrounding the film—that he’d once compared kissing Monroe to “kissing Hitler” (something Curtis long denied, then finally admitted in his 2008 autobiography was just a joke for the benefit of the film crew).

 

In 1960, Curtis was brought in to lend “star power” to Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, playing a poet-loving children’s tutor who nevertheless remains determined to fight alongside Kirk Douglas’ Thracian rebel. Unfortunately for Curtis, one of his biggest scenes remained lost for nearly seven years—a homoerotic bath sequence in which Sir Laurence Olivier seduces his “body servant” Curtis with metaphorically heavy talk of “eating snails” versus “eating oysters.” Kubrick restored the scene two years after Olivier’s death, bringing in Curtis to re-record his lines opposite the actor he’d hired to mimic Olivier: a young Anthony Hopkins.

 

Curtis’ career peaked in the 1960s, and for years he was unable to land major roles, finding solace in drugs and alcohol throughout the ’70s, and even transitioning to TV with his role opposite Roger Moore in the pun-filled British crime caper series The Persuaders!. (During this time he also appeared on The Flintstones, poking fun at himself by playing “Stony Curtis.”) He finally cleaned up in the early ’80s after spending some time in Betty Ford, landing an Emmy nomination for playing mega-producer David O. Selznick in the TV movie The Scarlett O’Hara War, and taking on another recurring role in the Robert Urich series Vega$. Throughout the ‘90s and into the last decade he continued to star in the occasional TV or B-movie, made appearances on shows like Roseanne and Lois And Clark, and even toured in a 2002 live production of Some Like It Hot, this time playing the role of lovesick millionaire Osgood Fielding III. At the time of his death, Curtis was rumored to be filming a role opposite Tom Sizemore in Morella, an adaptation of an Edgar Allan Poe story. His last completed on-screen appearance was in 2008’s David And Fatima playing, as though coming full circle, a character called “Mr. Schwartz.” Curtis leaves behind six children, including Jamie Lee Curtis, whom he fathered with his first wife, actress Janet Leigh.